The news that Wal-Mart would be introducing a smaller version of its chain store, called “Wal-Mart On Campus,” illustrates the contentious nature of real estate in Richmond: While the possibility of low prices and walking distance convenience are alluring, there’s a vocal opposition, myself included, toward yet another corporate chain being introduced into an area sacred to some.
There are, however, a few issues with resisting a chain store like Wal-Mart.
For one, the student body here is a fixed transient population, a constantly evolving, yet stationery age group that is self-interested (with good reason) in completing their degree and moving on within a four-year timeframe. Students will always be here, but not always the same students and that makes managing the area weird, to say the least. The current population of students will always resist change, but the next population will accept the change, never knowing the option (or lack of) that had previously been available to them.
Sure, we say ‘no’ to Wal-Mart now, but when spending $2 on bananas becomes easier than stealing a few from Shafer, will we be complaining? Eventually, convenience and disinterest in preservation wins out over resistance.
It’s unfortunate that Richmond’s foreground must routinely defend itself against being displaced because they are somehow obsolete, unprofitable, ungainly or otherwise inconveniently placed for a large entity’s taste. It’s the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” line, albeit taken into a gentrification and redevelopment mentality, where residents want the real estate, but the real estate doesn’t want the residents.
Supporting small and local businesses isn’t just a trendy, friendly thing to do; it’s not even necessarily the best economic philosophy, but it is a vital element in maintaining an authentic image. The aesthetic of the Richmond area immediately surrounding West Grace is irreconcilable with the reputation, face and operations of Wal-Mart. No matter how large or small the store is, it’s antithetical and, more to the point of VCU holding official offices and classrooms in the same building, a representation of higher education underfunding and an uncomfortable partnership between educational institutions and for-profit businesses.
The primary issue with allowing a WalMart, even a small one, to enter our local community is that the area becomes less “Richmond” and more franchised, more corporatized and more like every other city in America. Variety is the spice of life; our city and our community depends on the unique atmosphere that attracts tourists, entrepreneurs, event organizers and small businesses, an atmosphere that becomes polluted and stagnate when we allow franchises and copy-paste businesses into even unoccupied spaces.
We should not sacrifice our culture, a priceless commodity, for financial or economic expedience. As valuable as the self-reported ten jobs and low prices that would undercut locally-owned businesses (including bike shops, convenience stores and VCU apparel sellers) would be, we cannot idly permit VCU to act in a manner contrary to local self-interest.
And yet, in all honesty, any number of student plus resident organized protests won’t stop the corporate engine of Wal-Mart from setting up shop. Citizens, both student and resident, against the invasion of Wal-Mart and similar enterprises cannot hope to defend their turf by lobbying officials more concerned with the financial gains of such ventures or by appealing to the offending entity itself. Instead, the weapon of choice should be the strength of restraint: Pretend it doesn’t exist. When asked where the nearest store is, inform the inquirer of the Kroger on Broad or to one of the numerous convenience stores. When a circula sneaks its way into your residence, promptly recycle it. When friends speak of it, inform them of your choice.
In a time where politicians of all stripes prioritize money over constituent voices, we must vote with our wallets. Just as we have done without the shoddy workmanship of Wal-Mart’s manufactured products and untoward business practices, we can continue to live without them. Restraining ourselves from the allure of cheap products and low prices takes strength, but it is a fight well worth our every fiber, and not just for Richmonders, but for every town or city that faces the company.
It’s not just local businesses that suffer when Wal-Mart rolls in to set up shop: it’s vendors that are squeezed by pricing demands that have to lay off employees and close domestic plants, it’s employees that suffer forms of wage theft and punishments for trying to unionize, and it’s our state government, who, according to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness, doles out an estimated $22.5 billion in public assistance (including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing) to the company’s employees every year.
Aside from the cultural and economic effects, there’s a more human aspect to this that can be easily overlooked: VCU News reported that “the building will include classrooms and administrative offices.” No student wants to be associated with the mere mention of taking a class or meeting with a faculty member in the same building that a Wal-Mart is located. It’s an affront to public education and the dignity of the student body. While that statement might reek of elitism, the true jab of it is that corporations have already achieved an unsightly amount of influence and power in governments, both nationally and locally. By no means am I asserting a conspiracy by Wal-Mart to indoctrinate students and branding textbooks, but marriages of convenience like this can be breeding grounds for intrigue.
An opposition toward change is not an opposition toward progress. Opposing what seems inevitable exemplifies courage and if the opposition articulates their message well and if we have the courage of our convictions, we have nothing to fear from Wal-Mart. It is neither mine, nor the opposition’s intent to make VCU and its student body beholden to the established grocery stores (such as the Kroger on Broad and the Target in Willow Lawn), but it is our intent to prevent West Grace and the Monroe Park campus from becoming a strip mall devoid of local flavor, aesthetics or historical effects.
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